Life on the Chrism Trail

Homily for the Solemnity of the Holy Family

December 27, 2020
St. Patrick Cathedral
Fort Worth, Texas

Sirach 3:2-6, 12-14
Psalm 105:1-2, 3-4, 5-6, 8-9
Colossians 3:12-21
Luke 2:22-40

Some of you have heard me tell of my past experiences as a priest-ethicist serving as a consultant in the field of health care. One of my responsibilities was to assist people in preparing their durable powers of attorney for health care especially regarding the Catholic tradition of ordinary and extraordinary means of treatment. In giving my presentation to a group of people, someone would inevitably make the statement, “Father, I just do not want to spend my elderly years as a burden to my children.” I would respond, “I understand, but it is too late. You already are a burden to your children and have been so for their entire lives, and they to you.”

We read in today’s first reading from Sirach, “My son, take care of your father when he is old; grieve him not as long as he lives. Even if his mind fail, be considerate of him; revile him not all the days of his life; kindness to a father will not be forgotten, firmly planted against the debt of your sins — a house raised in justice to you.”

When it comes to our responsibilities and relationships within our families, we frequently make the mistaken presumption that we are not to burden each other as members of the same family. The Solemnity of the Holy Family that we celebrate today clarifies that the redemption of humanity by Christ begins with the redemption of family life through the acceptance of God’s will by Mary and Joseph and the selfless and burdensome love that they offered to each other and to Jesus throughout their lives.

Today in Luke’s Gospel, we hear of the circumcision and naming of Jesus and the purification of Mary after childbirth. Joseph and Mary, observing the ritual laws, brought Jesus to the Temple to present him to God. At the Temple, they encountered two elderly individuals whose great faith lets them see the baby Jesus as the fulfillment of God’s promise to save His people.

The righteous and devout Simeon was led by the Spirit to the Temple where he recognized Jesus as the source of salvation for all peoples. He also foresaw the controversy Jesus would bring, and the sufferings He and those who believe in Him would face, “Behold, this child is destined for the fall and rise of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be contradicted — and you yourself a sword will pierce — so that the thoughts of many hearts may be revealed.” This prophesy by Simeon that the sword would pierce the heart of the Blessed Mother manifests that it was part of God’s plan that Mary and Joseph would share in the suffering of Jesus out of their love for Him and their fidelity to God. Part of that suffering would include the rejection of Jesus by many of His own extended family in His hometown of Nazareth who refused to believe in Him. It shows that the burdens involved with marriage and family life are not only part of human nature but that they are vehicles for God’s grace and the redemption of sin.

It is important at Christmas that we also celebrate the Holy Family as an example and intercessor for each of our families, since those to whom we have been given and who have welcomed us into their lives bring us strength and grace. We will not be naïve about families … families can be the source of great joy, but they also can be the source of great suffering and tragedy. The deepest loves and the deepest hurts are those associated with family. We are made by God to be part of a community, like it or not. There is no such a thing as a self-made or autonomous person; we are who we are only as part of a family and a community. Therefore, the Church teaches that it is the family and not the individual that is the fundamental cell of society.

What we receive from God through our families — what makes them holy — is what Saint Paul reminds us about in the reading to the Colossians today, “Put on, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, heartfelt compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience,
bearing with one another and forgiving one another, if one has a grievance against another; 
as the Lord has forgiven you, so must you also do.” Families are the place where we are challenged and learn to pay attention to others beside ourselves, to put up with others, to ask forgiveness when we hurt others, and to forgive when we are hurt. The relationships in a family form us to be people of compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience. In families, husbands and wives learn to be respectful of each other in their distinct roles, children discover that they need the strength and wisdom of their parents, and parents learn how God’s gifts include their children. As Saint John Paul II once said, “To maintain a joyful family requires much from both the parents and the children. Each member of the family has to become, in a special way, the servant of the others and share their burdens. Each one must show concern, not only for his or her own life, but also for the lives of the other members of the family: their needs, their hopes, their ideals.”

The integrity of marriage as a life-giving covenant between one man and one woman blessed by God is essential for the flourishing of family life and for the growth and development of each human person. Children need the influence and relationship with both a father and a mother. When one is lacking there is objective harm that is suffered that can only be overcome with God’s grace and mercy. Children require the reassurance that they are accepted as persons and not viewed by their parents as extensions of themselves or as valued commodities. 

Fear is too frequently a disposition that dominates men and women when considering the vocation of married life and the responsibility to be open to transmission of new life through the marital covenant. We hear of couples who are afraid to be open to more children because they are afraid of the possible loss of comforts and material advantages by welcoming more children into their lives. We frequently hear of young adults who decide not to marry through the exchange of vows, preferring to cohabitate, because they are afraid to divorce — as if divorce is inevitable. It is the mindset of the dominant culture that marriage is not a public commitment but rather a private lifestyle choice made by some to carry out the public declaration of one’s sexuality.

These are all destructive attitudes that harm not only individuals but our society because they foment fear and isolation within the family and therefore within society and make us selfish and unhappy. Our breakdown within society stems from the breakdown in our understanding of marriage and family life. It is this fear of generosity and distrust of commitment that accelerates a culture of death. As Saint John Paul II preached on October 7, 1979, on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., “Courage is needed to resist pressures and false slogans, to proclaim the supreme dignity of all life, and to demand that society itself give it its protection. A distinguished American, Thomas Jefferson, once stated: ‘The care of human life and happiness and not their destruction is the just and only legitimate object of good government’” (March 31, 1809). In the fourth chapter of the Book of Genesis, when God confronts Cain with the question, “Where is your brother Abel?” Cain responds with the dishonest and defiant response, “I do not know. Am I my brother’s keeper?” God redeems that sinful murder and lie of Cain through the coming of Christ as part of the Holy Family, the family whose members burden each other with their needs and their shared participation in the mission of salvation as entrusted by God to Jesus and shared with all whom Christ calls. We are keepers of one another beginning but not ending with our fathers, mothers, sisters, brothers, and sons and daughters. Let us be sharers of one another’s burdens…those very burdens which can become vehicles of grace as we come to know more deeply in whose image and likeness we are made — God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, a community of persons in love, the prime example of our call to live as God’s family.

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